Dalton Hilliard gets shot at going both ways

Dalton Hilliard has moved back to defensive back from running back but still could play both ways. Peter Yoon/ESPNLA.com

LOS ANGELES -- Dalton Hilliard's wish of playing both ways has come true over the last couple of practices.

Unfortunately for the Bruins, it's not for the reasons he'd hoped.

Hilliard, a safety for his first three seasons at UCLA, switched to running back before spring practice began, but has been forced back to the defense after a rash of injuries has left the Bruins thin in the defensive backfield.

Early on in camp, Hilliard told anyone who would listen that he intended to play both ways, but the coaching staff didn't seem as into the idea as Hilliard. Now, Hilliard is saying "I told you so."

"I’ve kind of known that I was going to have to go back to defense because we’ve had so many guys injured," Hilliard said. "I actually went up to the office yesterday and talked to coach about possibly helping out the defense a little bit."

Hilliard has performed well as a running back -- a position he hasn't played since high school -- and shown the promise of a playmaker on offense. But with cornerbacks Anthony Jefferson, Brandon Sermons and Librado Barocio recently joining a growing list of injured Bruins defensive backs that already included safeties Dietrich Riley, Alex Mascarenas and Andrew Abbott, Hilliard started feeling sorry for his former position mates.

"I noticed that we had numbers down," Hilliard said. "As a running back, we have a lot of depth and the reps aren’t too taxing. [The defensive backs] are only a couple of guys deep and the reps can be taxing with the pace we’re moving in practice."

So Hilliard went to defensive backs coach Demetrice Martin and coach Jim Mora and asked if he could help out.

"You gotta love that attitude, man," Mora said. "That willingness to do whatever it takes to help the team...I love his enthusiasm. The fact that he’d come in the day before a scrimmage and he hasn’t taken a snap on defense and says I know we’re hurting a little on defense, give me some snaps on defense, how can you not love that?"

Martin joked that is was only a matter of time.

"He's a guy that played high school running back his whole career and then came to college and played safety," Martin said. "He still has those demons inside of him to go play running back. All right, go chase those demons out. You’ll be back over."

Hilliard started five games at safety for the Bruins last season and was a key reserve the year before. Last season he was sixth on the team with 50 tackles. Before coming to UCLA, he earned all-state honors as an all-purpose player at Punahou High in Hawaii.

There, he had 559 yards and 10 touchdowns rushing and 63 receptions for 725 yards and eight touchdowns receiving. He says he hopes his days as a running back are not yet finished even though he played exclusively on defense Tuesday.

"I really wanted to make it clear that I didn’t want to leave the offense completely," said Hilliard, who is bringing two different jerseys to practice so he can switch if need be. "I still want to help out there, but I’m leaving it in [the coach's] arms. Wherever they want me to play, I’ll play. If they want me to play tackle, I’ll play tackle."

At 6 feet, 205 pounds, he'd have to gain some weight before that would happen. For now, he'll work on brushing up on the defense and keep trying to convince Mora that he can play both ways. Mora acknowledged it's a possibility, but that he would exercise caution.

"If you don’t overload him and you have a good plan for how he will spend his week in terms of preparation then I think you can do it," Mora said. "But you have to be very, very careful. I think you can spot play guys. You don’t just do it to do it. You have to have a reason behind it. Dalton maybe gives us a reason to do it."

And Hilliard looks as if he's a natural. On his first day back at safety, he made a nice interception during a team drill and said all the work he's put in on catching passes this spring helped on that play.

Well, that and a little inside knowledge.

"Knowing the playbook a little helped," he said with a wink. "They say I cheat, but it comes with the territory of playing both ways."